by Magnus Rena
Canongate, 208pp, ISBN 9781838854270, £10.99
Dissatisfied — romantically, professionally, existentially — Amy Liptrot has moved to Berlin. She gave up alcohol four years before — the subject of her exceptional first memoir, The Outrun, about her recovery in the Orkney Islands. This new memoir is a continuation of The Outrun. It has a similarly confessional tone, a habit for seeking out the natural in the urban and a fondness for the wild and feral. Its real significance, however, is the trend it represents in nature writing. A genre that once connected us to the environment now, unwittingly, tends to withdraw us. Nature is relegated to a background role, overshadowed by the author’s preoccupation with their own state of mind.
We begin as Liptrot touches down, her sober, early-bird routine perching quirkily in the nightlife capital of Europe. It doesn’t start well. The first few weeks are a crash-course in chronic ennui. She drifts from bathtubs to tower-block balconies, idly scrolling Twitter and twirling the Google Earth globe on her phone. Abroad and unanchored, she is writing from the doldrums of Fernweh — literally ‘far-ache’, an untranslatable German word for a longing similar to homesickness (Heimweh) but vaguer: the self adrift from nowhere in particular, just ‘a place that isn’t where you are’.
Eventually the book picks up. She embarks on a language course, studies in a bakery every morning and spends her afternoons birdwatching. In the evenings she goes on dates with men she met online before cycling out again at sunrise to Tempelhofer Feld park. There’s a streak of mania to her enthusiasms — Liptrot is aware of the ‘cross-addiction’ recovering alcoholics feel seep into other areas of life — but it makes for invigorating reading. The book is at its best when she’s playful, sardonic and impatient.
One night she gets into Berghain, where she’s decided to celebrate four years teetotal. An intriguing juxtaposition, not least because she describes the club as if she’s off her face: lycra- and leather-clad goths become urchins and anemones, their mouths moving inaudibly ‘like underwater communication’. To wax lyrical on der Klub is always to risk pretentiousness but the image of an Atlantic rock pool in the depths of a techno dungeon is bracing and inventive, the grungy swill of sweat and salt spray intoxicating. The problem, ironically, is that The Instant draws these scenes out for too long. Soon the passage strains and rambles, like getting stuck in conversation with a stranger in the smoking area just as you’re sobering up. Soul-searching monologues fizzle to platitudes: ‘I’m not looking for sex and drugs, I’m looking for some kind of completion’, which, incidentally, I can’t help but read to the tune of Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’.
Judging from the epilogue, the book takes place around 2017, when Britain was still in the EU. This is significant for a book so concerned with belonging; indeed her year in Berlin amounts to an experiment in belonging. Bureaucratically, life in the Eurozone isn’t easy — what bureaucracy is? — but it’s manageable. She acknowledges the breeziness of it all: ‘I am a highly privileged immigrant, not so much an economic migrant as a lifestyle migrant, coming here seeking new experiences.’ Frustratingly, Liptrot never seriously interrogates issues like migration, Brexit and poverty. An air of pseudo-hippy patriotism — ‘I declare myself a citizen of Scotland and the internet and the sea’ — prevents her from grappling with the complexities of a city in the midst of extreme gentrification, rising unemployment and pronounced immigration policies.
After all that, it might seem odd to think of The Instant as nature writing. It lacks the rugged wilderness of The Outrun’s Orkneys. But it is preoccupied by a different kind of wild, one less familiar to nature writing, a wild which encompasses astronomy, geology, the weather and the internet. After bad dates or sleepless nights she tracks NASA spacecraft, watches the live feed of a volcano or checks an app which tells her the course and phases of the moon.
How these curiosities are torn and scattered through the text, clustering in times of crisis, is reminiscent of Jenny Offill’s novels, Weather and Dept. of Speculation. But while Offill finds in them an immense, cosmic anxiety, Liptrot finds a remedy. ‘“Doing some astronomy”’, she wrote in The Outrun, ‘is a good excuse for a smoker to pop outside’. In The Instant it’s not an excuse, it’s a consolation.
I’m interested in equinoxes and solstices, the moments when the planets and the years balance and tip, the instants when we come in and out of shadow.
When she feels most alone, her impulse is to seek out the impossibly far away, to take solace in the vast, silent clockwork of the solar system. It is one of the most satisfying elements of the book, evoking a quiet, mathematical poignancy while distracting, a little, from her loneliness.
And where there’s loneliness, there’s the internet. The Outrun was full of references to online blogs, chat forums, Facebook, Friendster, and internet cafes. They were dated but that was the charm. The web of the mid-2000s appeared chaotic, opinionated and tightly woven into the subcultures and social circles that Liptrot moved in. By the time she began writing The Instant, her adult life could be traced in its entirety by her browsing history, her ‘data shadow’. Unfortunately, Liptrot now has little to say about this beyond lines as eye-rollingly unprofound as ‘What is harder than a hard drive?’, or ‘It strikes me that my phone is a reflective surface, a mirror.’ For a book situated so precisely between the urban, the natural and the online — and where the latter becomes a kind of new wilderness in itself, a wilderness populated by data roamers and digital nomads — it’s difficult not to feel a bit short-changed.
As regrettable as this is, Liptrot is not alone. The flaws of The Instant are symptomatic of a wider crisis in nature writing. Or rather, nature-ish writing. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of nature writing. The first is what we’re used to: someone writing about their surroundings, drawn by an interest in nature and by the rhythms of waiting and looking, by the simple act of curiosity. They might extend that curiosity to beyond ‘nature’ as we know it (the post-human landscapes in Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment, for instance) and they might thread their own life into the book, but this is only ever secondary to the tasks of venturing, looking, waiting, writing. This is the school of Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane, W.G. Sebald and Nan Shepherd. While new voices emerge, ‘the lone, enraptured male,’ as Jamie skewers it, still commands the landscape.
A second kind of nature writing has sprung up more recently. The premise is simple: write to dislodge a pain, and nature might help too. It’s well-suited to the conditions — solitude, slowness, introspection — of rest, recovery, and growth. But nature here is rarely a priority, more often a balm to relieve the author’s distress. Although fundamentally different to the first category, it has laid claim to the same ground. It is still sold and marketed as natural history but it might as well be shelved under grief memoirs, recovery memoirs, books of consolation and reflection, of losing and finding oneself. All of a sudden the genre of nature writing has been flooded with a new kind of book, interested in nature only partially, distractedly.
It’s not all bad: Helen MacDonald’s H Is For Hawk, Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure and The Outrun too — all three publishing hits, all three insightful as well as candid and vulnerable. Yet as the genre swells, what’s striking is not so much these occasional successes but the quantity of new titles. As Mark Cocker put it in his article on ‘the new nature writing’: ‘One wonders if the championing of H Is for Hawk as a model of the genre says little about the book and nothing at all about its literary merit but reveals more about this country and its peculiar relationship with nature.’ It suggests that nature writing is now for urban readers, a literature that it is only relatable if filtered through cities and psyches.
And fair enough. Is it realistic to expect a genre of whole-heartedly wild literature when the landscape — irrevocably changed in the decades leading up to this trend — denies it? Wouldn’t such writing be pure nostalgia? And can it even be called nostalgia if the author wasn’t alive to remember the sound of a turtledove’s call or the blizzards of insects on a summer evening? Well, perhaps. But that misses the point. Because it does have a point. Nature writing is a means of paying attention to the world around us, noticing how it changes and recognising its value. ‘Attention is the thing we offer,’ says Katherine Rundell, ‘that we owe most to the world we live in . . . I mean attention as a bodily and political act, not just an intellectual discipline.’ What these nature-ish books threaten to instil is an attitude of naive wonder — mellowing for the beholder but destructive for the beheld.
And still, the most exasperating feature of this new genre is not its existence, but that much of it just isn’t very good. The clue is on the covers. No matter what publishing house, books like The Instant will be branded with shimmeringly vague (and patronising) words: ‘luminous’, ‘brave’, ‘open-hearted’. And it’s unsurprising. Vagueness is the name of the game. The genre thrives of hazy, nebulous ideas — in itself not a problem. But these ideas are complex, too complex at least for the emotive, meandering language on which these memoirs tend to rely. Take Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s Thin Places (published a week before The Instant), about places ‘that make us feel something larger than ourselves, as though we are held in place between worlds, beyond experience.’ The idea could be appealing but we never actually arrive at it, held back by a fog of personal impressions. The same is true in The Instant: Liptrot drifts aimlessly and so does her prose.
By contrast, take a nature memoir published the year before: The Long Field by Pamela Petro, about Wales and its homegrown idea of hiraeth, a longing for something lost. Like Liptrot, Petro is alone in a foreign country, dealing in a language of atmospheres and abstractions; Petro’s hiraeth and Liptrot’s Fernweh are cousins of the same idea. Both are slippery words, not easily given to definition. What Petro does so well is to conjure something precise and coherent — and moving — out of such a woolly premise. Any flirting with the personal and the poetic — ‘I was intrigued by the new, viscous quality of my life’ — is immediately reigned in and clarified within a sentence: ‘Here’s what I mean. . .’ This is the quality lacking in The Instant. It comes and goes, neither here nor there. Paragraphs pile up one after another like leaves falling on the ground: thin, shaky, written with the rhythm and editorial attention of unrefined diary entries.
Of course, this colloquial, unedited style is intentional. But its unintended effect is to distance the reader and undermine any emotional impact. Scenes feel disjointed and subdued like watching a film on mute: ‘I come to a nightclub, strangely open in the afternoon. I walk in, no one stops me, and briefly dance alone under the discoball.’ Moments like these could be uncanny, alienating, even heartbreaking, but they fall flat.
And, in a way, how appropriate. This is what Liptrot’s books are about: someone unable to elicit the feelings they were hoping or expecting to feel. They are portraits of someone navigating youth and early maturity, the weight of expectation on reality: that these should be the most enlivened years but are overshadowed by self-consciousness, course-correction and the intermittent dread that you are missing out or doing life wrong. If only those feelings — compelling and true as they are — materialised in the book with any conviction. It’s one thing to suffer the flaws of a struggling genre, it’s another to leave the reader longing for something more. In the end, that is the impression left by The Instant: another nature-ish memoir that lives up to neither the nature nor the life it describes.